warning: This is my own review of published literature on the health effects of saccharin. I do not have any formal training in medicine, and only a smattering in biology and neurology (I have a BA in psychology). I am fairly certain that I can interpret the research properly, and that I have not drawn any inappropriate conclusions. But this writeup should not be relied upon for medical or other mission-critical advice.

        It appears that sodium saccharin (the form of saccharin which is used as an artificial sweetener) uncontestably causes bladder cancer in rats (mostly male rats). However, it does not have this effect on mice, hamsters and guinea pigs (Ellwein, L.B. & Cohen, S.M. Crit Rev Toxicol, 1990. 20: 311-326) . It has been suggested that a rat-specific protein causes an intense susceptability to bladder irritation and neoplasm formation in response to saccharin. In fact, since similar tumorigenicity has been observed at equal doses of sodium ascorbate, sodium citrate, and table salt (sodium chloride), it appears that the Na+ ion is doing more than the saccharin. The high concentration of rat urine compared to primate urine probably contributes to this effect.
        A recent study at the National Cancer Institute (Takayama, S. et al., Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 1998. 90(1). 19-25), a division of the National Institutes of Health, fed 20 monkeys 25mg/kg NaSaccharine/day 5 days/week for 24 years (or until death), starting from birth or 1-2 days after. This is about 10X the recommended safe daily dosage for humans. The authors found no evidence of increased tumor growth in these monkeys compared to controls. Several monkeys from both groups also had their urine examined during their last 2 years, and no differences were found, nor were there any deposits of the type correlated with tumor growth in rats.
        On this basis, the authors conclude that the rat evidence is misleading and that, barring epidemiological evidence of increased cancer in human users, we should judge saccharin safe. However, Jacobson et al. (Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 1998. 90(12). 934-936) point out several troubling issues:

1) The experiment was not powerful enough. That is, with such a small number of subjects a weak but real and repeatable effect would be indistinguishable from chance. In fact, a there was a statistically insignificant trend towards greater cancer in saccharin-fed monkeys, leaving the door open for further investigation.
2) While the bladder cancer effect is somewhat rat-specific, it's not as neat as Takayama et al. describe. Both mice and rats show cancers in a variety of other sites in response to high doses (Reuber, M.D. Environmental Health Perspective, 1978. 25. 173-200.). Takayama et al. claim that these data can be safely ignored, but I haven't tracked down their sources (International Agency for Research on Cancer. International Agency for Research on Cancer monograph on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks of chemicals to humans. Some non-nutritive sweetening agents. Vol. 22. Lyon, France: IARC. 1980. 118-85 ; Cohen, SM. in Some species differences in carcinogenesis: thyroid, kidney, and urinary bladder. Lyon, France: IARC. In press (probably published by now).).
3) A large-scale study by the National Cancer Institute (Hoover, R. N. & Strasser, P. H. Lancet, 1980. 837-840.) found an association between artificial sweetener consumption and cancer in high-risk male and low-risk female humans. However, we must note that this lumped all artificial sweeteners together, including the now-banned cyclamates.
4) Most serious, in my estimation, is the conflicts of interest they uncovered. Funding from the International Life Sciences Institute was acknowledged in the Takayama study. One funder of ILSI is Cumberland Packing Corporation, a major producer of saccharin. Even worse, one of the authors worked as a paid consultant to the Calorie Control Council, which is an association of artificial sweetener producers.
5) Despite the fact that the monkeys were given 10X the recommended human dose, in 1977 the 90th percentile of human users also consumed that much.

        So saccharin may or may not be carcinogenic. I'm not planning to worry about it, since I certainly use less than those monkeys (or those people, who may not deserve cancer but at least deserve no better fate than the people who eat six boxes of Snackwell's™ cookies). On the other hand, I'm a little more worried about living in America ever since I heard about how saccharin escaped outright illegality in 1977, after the NIH determined that it was too dangerous. They actually did ban its use, but congress overrode them with the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act of 1977, which kept saccharin legal for a period of 18 months and required the addition of the now-famous warning blurb. 18 months later, they passed a similar act. This carried on until 1997.

        groan.

        I'm not sure what happened then, but an expert panel at NIH narrowly voted to keep saccharin on the "suspected carcinogen" list and retain the warning. Apparently they no longer feel it needs to be banned outright, though.

Saccharin, an artificial sugar prepared from coal-tar, first introduced in 1887 by its discoverer Dr. Constantin Fahlberg of Salbke (Germany). Its sweetening properties are enormous. It is not a fermentable sugar, and is in common use in the treatment of disease, as diabetes, for instance; and in many cases in which the palate craves for sweets, but in which ordinary sugar cannot be permitted without danger. A French Commission reported in 1888, that its use in food would seriously affect the digestive functions, and recommended the government to prohibit its employment in alimentary substances. The discoverer and many eminent chemists deny that saccharin is injurious to the human system.


Entry from Everybody's Cyclopedia, 1912.

Sac"cha*rin (?), n. [F., from L. saccharon sugar.] Chem.

A bitter white crystalline substance obtained from the saccharinates and regarded as the lactone of saccharinic acid; -- so called because formerly supposed to be isomeric with cane sugar (saccharose).

 

© Webster 1913.


Sac"cha*rin (?), n. Chem.

A trade name for benzoic sulphinide.

[Sometimes erroneously written as saccharine.]

 

© Webster 1913.

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